Monday, February 23, 2015

El Carajo International Tapas and Wine (Miami, FL): Excellent food where you buy gas

What do you get when you divert a 1,925-mile-long raging torrent into a narrow, bounded canal which has its own tributaries and whose own flow is regulated by locks which open and close on a regular basis? You get the point in Miami where I-95, the longest North-South highway in the union (passing through 15 states between its origin point in Maine and its terminus in Florida), ends ignominuously at Route 1 in the vicinty of SW 32nd Road, dumping its contents unceremoniously on the already frustrated and harried travelers plying that route. But you also get, just a block or so further west (at 2465 SW 17th Avenue), El Carajo International Tapas and Wine, a standout in the burgeoning foodie industry segment designated as Gas Station Restaurants.

Both and The Washington Post have published articles within the past year describing the Gas Station Restaurant trend and profiling some of the practitioners. Filling stations are viewed as attractive restaurant sites because their locations on street corners provide good visibility and great access. In many cases ownership of the two enterprises are divergent and co-location can provide benefits to both parties:
  • The gas station owner gets help with overhead costs
  • The restaurant gets a relatively inexpensive space with guaranteed foot traffic
  • Customers get to eat great food in a "surprisingly" pleasant environment.
I heard about El Carajo from Andres Montoya, the owner of The Wine Barn, who visited the establishment when he was in Miami recently for that city's installment of the Bordeaux UGC 2015 Tasting Tour. He spoke glowingly of the food and wines and expressed amazement at the location of the venue. Words like "non-descript" and "gas station" peppered his discourse. It sounded like an adventure so I made a mental note to visit the next time I was in town. That opportunity presented itself last weekend when I travelled south for the South Beach Food and Wine Festival.

So there I was on Friday afternoon. Dumped unceremoniously from I-95 into the unmoving traffic on Route 1. I was familiar with this road. I had had many a traffic-laden trip on it on my way to Coconut Grove. The traffic here is relentless. Suddenly my GPS announced "You have reached your destination." I had been busily chatting away but paused to look for the establishment. I saw no sign of food or a food establishment. There was a gas station over to my right but it did not look promising. But, again, it was the only gas station around so I made a right turn into the cross street and pulled warily into the entrance. There were quite a few cars parked at the site. More than one would expect at a "normal" gas station. I wedged my car into the only available "parking space" and headed for the building entrance.

According to NPR, El Carajo is a bakery, wine store, and restaurant that was founded by Richard Fonseca and which he currently operates along with his wife and three sons.The Chef is one Luis Barbosa whose tapas, paellas, grilled meats, cakes, and large portions are legendary.

The first impression that you get stepping through the entrance is that you have entered the ultimate retail wine warehouse. Bottles of wine are everywhere. The convenience store/gas pump checkout is to the left as you enter with the deli/bakery off to the far right.

A passageway leads from the forward commercial areas to a more dimly lit section of the establishment. A bar consisting of high-top tables and seating on both sides is at the far end of this hallway while the restaurant seating areas are positioned to its right and left.

At the table, the menus were rolled up into tightly wound cylinders the shapes of which were maintained by a thin rope tied around the circumference. It was cute but reading it was a constant battle as it struggled valiantly to return to its accustomed position (rather than yield up the secrets of its offerings). When I was finally able to view the menu in its totality, the contents were truly impressive, both in terms of the number of items on offer and the reasonableness in terms of cost. You need time to fully digest its contents.

I started out with a Galician Soup whose components included Smoked Pork, Sausage, Bacon, Bok Choy, Serrano Ham, and White Beans. It was heavenly. It was almost a meal by itself. By the way, the corkage fee was very reasonable so I accompanied the soup with a bottle of Maison L'Orée Meursault Premier Cru Charmes that I just happened to have in my wine bag. I followed the soup up briskly with a hot Tapas called Fufú de Cangrejo (Savory Mashed Plantains Topped with Fresh Crab prepared in a Spicy Enchilada).

I rounded out my meal with an order of Costillas Canarias -- six succulent and perfectly seasoned Grilled Ribs accompanied by an authentic spicy Canarias sauce. This was a huge portion. I could not handle it in total. I meekly ate what I could and nudged the remainder gently to the edge of the table.

There is a lot of energy at this establishment. The food is good. The staff is friendly and helpful. You can bring your own wine if you desire but do not fear if you forget the bag at home. They have more than enough to fulfill your needs.The timeliness of the service is not 5-star but, what the heck, you are in a gas station. This is a do-over.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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